Translink is the brand name for the co-ordinated public transport services of Citybus, NI Railways and Ulsterbus, providing practically all public transport in Northern Ireland. Approximately 4000 people are employed by the organisation. Some 80 million passenger journeys are carried per year, this equates to carrying approximately the population of Northern Ireland every week!

Delivery of services differs from other industries in the very high level of passenger - staff interaction. This is a major determinant of service delivery perceptions for customers. In addition, it is acknowledged that funding for and investment in public transport in NI had been at a low level for many years. The recent significant investment programme has improved the quality of the physical product experienced by passengers i.e. new rolling stock for the railways and bus fleet.

This background is presented as the context within which the marketing of public transport takes place. It helps clarify the marketing strategy and explain how marketing priorities are set.


Marketing strategy is directed by market research, formal passenger feedback mechanisms and ongoing quality assurance tools. These are summarised below. Information derived from these sources establishes those service attributes most important to passengers, and which determine overall customer satisfaction levels. Marketing strategy and annual plans prioritise actions relating to those service attributes which are most immediately within the control of the organisation within the short to medium term i.e. resources are allocated towards those areas where a demonstrable change can be made in service delivery and customer satisfaction.

2.1 Passenger Behaviour and Expectations Modelling

This major study comprised focus groups, in-depth interviews, completion of household travel diaries and postal interviews to identify barriers perceived and experienced by users and non-users of public transport in accessing bus and rail services. The research generated results specific to individual services and geographic transport corridors. A formal action plan to address the most significant barriers was then developed for implementation.

2.2 Price/Demand Forecasting Model

A quantitative survey was completed to model price/demand elasticity for all Translink services and comparable alternatives (e.g. private motoring, incorporating cost of car parking, etc.). The subsequent model is used to forecast demand scenarios for public transport and/or private car, etc. It is used in support of the development of price lead promotional strategies, fares structures and significant capital developments relating to infrastructure improvements.

2.3 Focus Groups

A series of focus groups are commissioned annually among users, non-users and staff to identify issues in relation to service delivery and act as a check on the ongoing validity of previous research models.

2.4 Passenger’s Charter Monitor

This is the fundamental quality assurance tool used within Translink. A published Passenger’s Charter outlines standards and targets in relation to service delivery in terms of service reliability, punctuality, waiting time, standing on buses and trains, etc. Twice per year 2,500 are carried out among passengers (5,000 p.a. in total) to record perceptions of service delivery. In addition, 2500 ‘mystery shopper’ observations verify actual levels of punctuality, reliability, etc. of all services.

The methodology used is industry leading, having been bench-marked on the best practice available throughout Europe via the Union International de Transport Public (UITP). ServQual and CHAID analysis are used to optimise the usefulness of the research outputs. Perceptions of service delivery in relation to a large range of service attributes are measured and gaps between perceived and expected delivery levels quantified.

In addition, respondents prioritise areas for improvement. The size of the sample along with the use of CHAID analysis permits results to be presented to quite local levels of operation e.g. a specific service or depot within the Translink network. Thus, very locally specific performance gaps and subsequent action plans may be readily identified. These action plans are developed by product management groups, local cross functional and multi level groups, an initiative developed and lead by Marketing.

2.5 Translink Passenger Groups

Translink has recruited seven standing passenger groups covering all geographical areas of operation within Northern Ireland. These groups are regular users of our services and meet quarterly to discuss service issues. In addition, each group member completes and returns a questionnaire in relation to service delivery on a weekly basis.

The passenger groups fulfil a very valuable ‘watchdog’ role at a local/micro level of service delivery. The meetings are attended by marketing, operating and engineering managers responsible for service delivery and the discussions generate a significant number of very relevant local service alterations. The groups are independently chaired and also act as sounding board for marketing initiatives, service developments, etc.

2.6 Political Affairs/Public Relations

Translink has a corporate commitment to openness, transparency and accountability in all political, media and public affairs. For example, it is practised policy is to have a spokesperson available for all media enquiries, interviews, etc. This open access to all political representatives and community groups provides a key entry into the thinking and needs of the broader community. Dialogue on many public transport issues is generated through the development of Translink ‘Connect’, a briefing document for the political, community and voluntary sector.

These tend to be the sectors involved in the consultation which accompanies major network and service developments such as Rural Transport Fund services, Easibus, school transport arrangements as well as long term strategic transport projects. In addition, their input is key in the formulation of policies in relation to issues such as Targeting Social Need, the Equality agenda and Disability Discrimination Act, etc.


Using this extensive suite of research, quality assurance and passenger feedback, the following service attributes have been prioritised within the marketing activity schedule, as of most importance to customer in the perception of service delivery and customer satisfaction in total:

1. Punctuality - did the service depart and arrive on time?
2. Reliability - did the service actually run?
3. Convenience of service - how it fits the individual’s schedule
4. Value for Money
5. Comfort Factors

Passenger information is a key tool in addressing these areas, crucial as it is to providing access to public transport in the first place and subsequent perceptions of journey punctuality, etc. In particular, Translink has a strong commitment to the provision of ‘real time’ information (especially in the event of service disruption) through the web site, the Contact Centre and strong links to media organisations. Even small items count, such as investment in a pager system and mobile phones for rail staff to keep passengers informed of disruption on any part of the network. This generates a level of confidence in the public transport journey which closes the gap with perceptions of private transport journeys.

Resources are also focused on flagship products where there is a demonstrable competitive advantage over alternatives, primarily the private car. Examples include:

Enterprise cross border rail service
NI Railways
Metro bus network in Belfast
Goldline Express services
Ulsterbus (town and rural services)
Smartlink (smartcard based ticketing)

In addition, user target segments are identified and addressed where significant potential for patronage is shown, in particular students; school children, pensioners and tourism related products.

The marketing programme is developed with full consultation from all Divisions within Translink, particularly the bus and rail services divisions, who provide the services on the ‘front line’, to ensure appropriateness and ease of implementation of all marketing activity.

Competitive advantage in the medium-long term is pursued through strategic product development involving the sourcing of additional funding for major infrastructure projects. This is achieved by demonstrating the case for the public transport as contributing to the quality of life of the community as a whole and generating and ultimately winning a broad political and public argument in factor of public transport.


A clear set of marketing priorities are established at the start of the year, within strategic guidelines outlined above. This is done in conjunction with marketing input to the corporate planning process. The priorities and how they are addressed are listed below.

4.1 Enhancement of passenger information

The following tools are currently used to meet the objectives in relation to passenger information. As stated, this area is strategically crucial, as it one area completely within Translink control and impacts significantly in customers’ perception of confidence in punctuality and reliability.

  • The use of road shows and travel advisors in all major shopping centres in Northern Ireland to distribute local travel information. Road shows are backed with promotions to generate interest.
  • Placement of Travel Advisers in major employers in Northern Ireland - delivering tailored, individual journey solutions for commuting and offering free travel for a week to generate trial. Payment for annual passes by direct debit is then arranged with the employer.
  • Development and implementation of an industry-leading website - fully interactive journey planning facility; all Translink timetables; real time travel updates every 15 minutes at peak hour.
  • Provision of a Contact Centre, currently handling up to 120,000 calls per month - operating 363 days per year - 7am until 8pm - delivering journey planning, timetables, fares and real time information. The Contact Centre and website are directly beneficial commercially, as research shows that 10-12% of all journey enquiries generate a ‘new’ journey.
  • Consistency and accuracy of all information is paramount. This has been achieved through the completion of a major I.T. project within marketing to integrate all timetabling information onto a single database which drives all information output and is managed in house.
  • Qualitative and quantitative improvement of printed information i.e. better information in more localised / individual formats often distributed directly to households.
  • Consistent delivery of latest travel news to all media organisations in the event of any disruptions to services, in particular excellent provision of information is achieved during periods of civil disturbance, adverse weather, etc.
    4.2 Marketing Programme for Flagship Products and Key Market Segments
    Each brand/flagship and target segment listed is discrete and accessible through specific communications and promotional programmes. All campaigns are formally evaluated on completion against a set of pre-set criteria, all commercially lead - i.e. we expect all campaigns to justify themselves on strict cost/benefit terms.
    A pattern of advertising to create awareness and below the line promotions to fill off-peak capacity has significantly grown this product. In addition, the service has a specific quality assurance programme similar to the Translink model.
    A targeted marketing campaign has generated significant and ongoing increases in patronage since the launch of this new bus network for Belfast. Key messages to be communicated include reduced journey times, enhanced waiting facilities, high specification buses and customer care. Marketing priorities are creating awareness of this service through high profile advertisement and aggressive promotions.
    NI Railways
    This service has been enhanced in every respect from rolling stock to facilities to customer care and branding. Innovative marketing underpinning the introduction of new trains and a ‘new rail service’ has delivered sustained and significant increases in passenger numbers.
    Significant local marketing and communications campaigns have supported the review of the Ulsterbus town and rural network over the past 24 months, with considerable success.
    The approach taken is similar to the Enterprise brand with both awareness of this service and its quality and journey time attributes being highlighted through above the line advertising, with below the line promotions used to fill off-peak capacity.
    This is a major user segment addressed at the start of each academic year with the objective of securing the purchase of student pass permitting discounts of travel for the rest of the year. Roadshows are used in each third level/further education college, along with local advertising and the provision of individual journey information. Schools A direct mail campaign targets the parents of children commencing 2nd level education who may not be entitled to free school transport offering annual passes at discounted rates.
    Numbers of out of state visitors continues to rise in Northern Ireland and the domestic tourism market also remains buoyant. A travel pass-based programme is devised for the months of July and August, contributing to filling the off-school peak capacity. Families in particular are targeted with specific products. Significant year on year growth is demonstrated in the post campaign evaluations.
    Senior citizens now receive free travel by bus and rail in NI. This is managed through a smartcard based ticketing system developed by Translink. Campaigns are ongoing to increase uptake and usage of the scheme.
    Multi journey tickets and travel card products have also moved to a smartcard basis. Campaigns target sales and usage of these products to generate loyalty among users and remove cash from buses and trains.
    e commerce /
    Increasingly sales and promotions are being delivered very effectively through the website – these are proving very popular and emphasis on this channel will increase in years to come. In general, the website is a crucial marketing tool for sales, communication and information.
    Other campaigns target more local / niche products such as rural services, links to airports and event related services.
    As indicated, planning and development of the annual marketing programme is done in conjunction with the Operating Division to ensure the appropriateness of campaigns. In addition, local priorities are developed which target key routes and services within smaller geographical areas which will benefit from more localised promotional support. Local campaigns are then designed and implemented by the Marketing Division for local operational managers. This in effect gives a 2-tier marketing schedule with local managers owning their own local marketing plan.
    Many campaigns and activities are clearly best practise in the industry, having picked up awards at a local and national level.
    The Marketing Division within Translink covering both bus and rail operations has the following structure reporting to the Marketing Executive:
    5.1 Business Development / commercial
    Responsible for: commercial / business development, market research; quality assurance; passenger feedback; brand management/advertising and promotional campaigns; market analysis and input to strategic product development programmes; website development and e commerce.
    5.2 Passenger Information and Publications
    Responsible for all marketing production including: design, development and production of all marketing material and corporate publications; provision of passenger information i.e. design, production and distribution of printed timetables, departure bills, etc., management of the Translink timetable database and the scheduling/timetabling process within the Group to ensure consistency and accuracy of information; provision of timetable/journey planning input to website and Contact Centre
    5.3 Communications
    Management of political affairs, media relations, public relations, internal communications, ‘community marketing’ and corporate events. This is a significant responsibility, given the exceptionally high level of public and media interest in public transport in general. Translink is clearly one of the most high profile organisations in Northern Ireland
    5.4 Contact Centre Management
    Provision of information services, 363 days per year, Mon - Fri 7am to 8pm, Sat & Sun 8am to 6pm, in respect of journey planning, timetable, fares, real time travel updates, handling of selected direct response marketing promotions and provision of quality assurance report in respect of complaints handling. Delivery standards are outlined in the passenger’s charter. The Contact Centre is also increasingly handling promotion, sales / reservations and (smart) pass renewals, etc.
    The effectiveness of the marketing strategy and activity schedules (and overall effectiveness of training and development) is best demonstrated in terms of both customer satisfaction indices and in commercial terms, including passenger numbers. In addition, all individual activity is evaluated against specific objectives and criteria.
    Customer satisfaction is measured in detail through the Passenger’s Charter Monitoring process. The past year has seen the highest levels of passenger satisfaction since the monitoring began 14 years ago. All these results are published and freely available to the public. Brand awareness and communication of promotional campaigns are routinely evaluated against pre-set business objectives.
    A strict cost-benefit view is taken in the short term, along with longer term trial generation / product-brand awareness objectives. Even in the very short-term practically all campaigns are ‘profitable’ and key flagship brands/segments show year on year growth and demonstrable commercial and quantitative success, some mentioned previously. In business terms, provision of passenger information is crucial. Research from GB and Europe demonstrates that approximately 10-12% of all journey queries to a Contact Centre or Website actually generate new journeys. Thus, the provision of passenger information becomes self-financing and a key business development tool in itself.
    The website currently enjoys up to 200,000 visits per month and the Contact Centre handles in excess of 120,000 calls per month, both continue to grow strongly year on year. Other metrics such as call length, etc. demonstrate efficiency gains. Number and quantity of timetables developed and distributed has increased from approximately 40 individual timetables to 120 in 3 years. Direct mail and individual face-to-face marketing is now a feature in distributing information.
    The commitment to transparency and accountability and the generation of a pro public transport debate in media and political circles has proved successful, generating a positive public image for Translink and securing significant additional investment in public transport from Government.
    This marketing strategy has shown that through focused investment in product improvement and a focus in the short-medium term on those service attributes which are most important to customers, patronage and customer satisfaction can be improved and increased. The successes of the flagships represent a significant case for further investment in the provision of public transport to reverse a long term decline.